[Note: This entry originally started out as an answer on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writings, I’m most active over there these days.]
Most people want to think of themselves as basically “good people.” Many people want to appear to be good people, particularly to their friends and social group. The cynic in me believes that few people are all that concerned with being good people, because being a good person is hard work, requiring careful analysis of complex, nuanced situations, dealing with ambiguity, and occasionally being forced to confront uncomfortable facts.
Enter Virtue Signaling, a way to express to your tribe that you uphold the tribal values without, you know, doing that hard, uncomfortable work! Gain all the advantages of conforming to the norms of your social group without any of that messy ethical stuff!
In the US, the political right loves to accuse the political left of virtue signaling, but this is something that knows no political divide. The rural conservative who throws away his Bud Lite because Budweiser gave beer to a transgender activist, or smashes his Dixie Chicks CD, is engaging in virtue signaling just as much as the liberal who posts “boycott Avatar 2!” on his Twitter feed without ever intending to watch the movie in the first place.
Emory & Henry College defines virtue signaling this way:
The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments to demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Modern examples of Virtue Signaling are posting opinions that you do not share on social media in order to gain popularity and reputation.
And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I admit I’ve done this. I’ve offered opinions on people and situations about which I was uninformed, because I wanted to be the good guy but didn’t want to take the time to better inform myself. (In fact, the times I’ve done this, I would’ve strenuously denied that was what I was doing, because of course I knew what I was talking about, even though I didn’t know the situation or talk to the people involved…I let my own narratives about How The World Works fill in the blanks for me. We human beings understand the world through stories; the narratives we accept, often without realizing it, inform the way we perceive the world.)
So, with that in mind, what separates genuine virtue from virtue signaling? How can you tell?
I would like to propose a set of guidelines that, I believe, makes separating the two rather easy:
Virtue signaling is cheap and costs nothing. You’re literally sending signals to improve your standing with your in-group; it will not cost you socially with your in-group by definition. It always goes with your in-group, never against it.
Virtue may cost you something—socially, politically, or financially. It sometimes may not match the expectations of the people around you. Holding to virtue might occasionally put you at odds with your in-group.
Virtue signaling has no nuance, no shades of gray. It boils everything down to bumper stickers: Jesus Is Lord. Make America Great Again. Eat The Rich. Kindness Is Everything. Because its purpose is to communicate that you belong with your in-group, it’s made up of simple slogans that champion the in-group’s values in simple, easy-to-understand ways.
Virtue allows for nuance. Virtue requires looking at complex situations and making informed choices, rather than relying on bumper-sticker deepitudes. Virtue isn’t about clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; it requires constant engagement.
Virtue signaling is about the person doing it. It’s a way to say “Look at me! Look at me! I share your values! Look at me!” It centers the person engaging in it: “everyone, see what a good person I am because I support the values of my in-group.”
Virtue is about the thing. It doesn’t grab the spotlight or seek attention. While a virtue signaler is on YouTube talking about how great they are for shining a light on the fact that homelessness is bad (don’t forget to click Subscribe! And sign up for my Patreon!), virtue is out there with a hammer building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
There’s actually a Bible passage about this: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Virtue signaling is out there praying loudly in the middle of the street; virtue takes place off stage, with sleeves rolled up, doing the work to find the facts and minimize harm in a world where there’s not always a lot of adulation in it and sometimes things aren’t as simple as they seem.
Virtue signaling is about identifying who’s one of Us and who’s one of Them. We are good, noble, just, patriotic. They are evil, corrupt, traitorous dogs.
Virtue is about living, inasmuch as is possible, a life of kindness and compassion, rooted in truth, empathy, and generosity.
Virtue signaling is about keeping safe by rigidly enforcing and policing the boundaries between Us and Them through purity and moral conformity. It turns on itself. It eats its own. It seeks out those on our side who are insufficiently pure, insufficiently dedicated to our ideals. It frequently spends as much time savaging those on Our side as attacking those on Their side.
Virtue is about living in an imperfect world where people are not always 100% pure 100% of the time. It’s about genuine harm reduction, not moral purity. Harm reduction is, as my crush and co-author Eunice once said, “ethics trying to live in the real world.” Where virtue signaling is proving one’s moral purity in a vicious game of Last Man Standing, virtue is about making the world just a little bit kinder, a little bit better, not just for those who pass the moral purity litmus test, but for everyone.
Virtue signaling tells you who the good guys and the bad guys are.
Virtue is understanding that nobody is purely one thing or the other, so the best approach is to treat others the way you would have them treat you—ir, if you’re genuinely virtuous, to do unto others 20% better than they do unto you, to correct for subjective error.
In other words, the key takeaway I’d like to propose is this:
Virtue signaling is about bettering your own station by persuading the people in your social group of your moral purity. Virtue is about bettering the world for everyone.
[Note: This entry is based on two of my answers on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writing, that’s the best place to do it these days.]
So I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about the psychology of bullying, and why bullies seem unhappy when you live a good life once you’ve escaped their reach.
And I think I’m at least a bit closer to understanding.
Bullying, like many other forms of abuse, is ultimately about power and control. People who feel out of control in their lives—perhaps due to problems in their family of origin, perhaps because they don’t have a strongly developed sense of boundaries or sense of self, whatever—often see controlling other people as the only way to feel safe or to reclaim a personal sense of power.
I mean, this isn’t like, an incisive and cunning insight or anything. We’ve known this since the dawn of time. Abuse is about power and control—that’s pretty much both axiomatic and definitional whenever you talk about abuse. Basically any book on abuse or bullying will tell you that.
Hurt people hurt people.
Again, not an incisive and cunning insight. Eunice and I found this graffiti whilst doing some urban spelunking in a ruined mansion when we were in New Orleans together:
Do hurt people hurt people? Is that why bullies bully?
Yes, as far as it goes. That is, do I believe “hurt people hurt people” is true? Yes. Do I believe it’s the whole truth? No, I don’t.
On a surface level, yes, it’s obviously true. You see it often when people break up—they’ll lash out at each other. Anger is part of grief, and anger frequently causes people to do hurtful things.
But I also think the real harm is more often done not by people who are hurt, but by people who are scared.
All the books on abuse and bullying, all the research, all the anecdotes, point in the same direction: the core of abuse is power. Whenever you see two people pointing fingers at each other and calling each other abusers, look to the arrow of control. One of them will be exerting, or attempting to exert, power and control over the other. That’s the abuser, always.
But people who exert power over others, in intimate partner relationships, rarely do so because they wake up and say “Hey, you know what? I enjoy being bossy. I think I’ll control my partner today!” (I mean yes, that can happen, but it’s not the norm.)
Most people driven to control in intimate relationships do so, I believe, because they’re acting out of fear. The control is a means to an end, not the end itself. They’re afraid of losing the relationship, or of being abandoned, or whatever, and exerting control becomes a bulwark against the fear, the only way they feel safe. “If I control who my partner socializes with, I can make sure nobody steals my partner.” “If I control where my partner goes, I can calm my fear that my partner is sneaking around behind my back.” Whatever.
The thing about fear is it drives us to extremes,. Often, like insecurity, it drives us to do the exact things that will cause what we fear to come true.
Control is rooted in fear, and a controlling person often lashes out if their fear comes true. Anyone who’s ever worked with intimate partner abuse will tell you the single most dangerous moment for an abuse victim is when they leave the abuser. A person who has lost control of their partner is extremely dangerous, and will often say or do anything to try to re-assert that control.
Fearful people are often people who were hurt in the past, especially as children. Control becomes a dysfunctional, maladaptive way to try to prevent being hurt or abandoned again.
So yes, hurt people hurt people on a surface level—anger is part of grief, and angry people lash out. But the real harm is most often done not out of hurt, but out of fear, and specifically out of fear that becomes need to control.
So. If abuse is about power and control, and abusers often exert power and control out of fear, why then do bullies hate that you live your best life later on?
Because it shows that you have escaped control. You are thriving, your life is wonderful, you are surrounded by joy and love…
They have failed to alter the trajectory of your life. They have failed to trap you in the muck with them. You’re accomplishing things, without them. You’re building joy, without them. They can no longer reach you. You are a living testament to their lack of control.
Abuse is about power and control. Your escape from the bully’s control is a personal affront that highlights whatever damage drives the bully to bully in the first place. It affirms the bully’s fear: I have been abaondoned. I am not loved. That’s intolerable.
Does silence mean consent? Sexually? No. Clearly not.
If you’re talking about Thomas More’s philosophy of qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent seems to consent), it’s…complicated.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and even had a long discussion about it with my co-author Eunice a few weeks back. We fall on opposite sides of the issue, or perhaps on subtly different sides of one aspect of the issue.
Buckle up, bruh, this might get long.
When people say “silence equals consent,” they’re uuuuusually not talking about sex. When More said “qui tacet consentire videtur,” he was responding to a legal question about why he didn’t recognize the king’s dominion over the Church. His answer basically meant “I didn’t object to it, therefore I recognize it.”
In law and international relations, qui tacet consentire videtur means something more like “silence means assent.” That is, if you don’t object to a statement or decision or policy or treaty or something, that is functionally the same as if you had voted “yes” to it.
Okay. So. Here’s the thing:
The same idea often seems to apply in social settings, especially in subcommunities. You’ll see this play out when, for example, people say “if you’re conservative but you don’t speak out against the fascists in your party, you’re basically saying you’re one of them.” Or “if you’re Muslim but don’t speak out against the violent extremists among you, you’re basically saying you agree with them.” (Whichever way you personally may fall on the political spectrum, dear reader, it always feels less comfortable when it’s turned around, doesn’t it?)
Now, I’ve seen this happen in a subcommunity that I used to belong to. I get how it works.
The thing Eunice points out, and I agree with, is qui tacet consentire videtur only applies if it’s safe to speak dissent. If you risk being beheaded for publicly saying that the king does not rightfully have dominion over the church, then keeping your mouth shut is not automatically assent.
The place we differ is whether or not remaining silent in the face of immorality is a morally defensible act.
Now I get it, I really do. If you live under the Taliban’s rule and you’re Muslim, you maybe might want to think twice about raising your voice in objection to extremism, or you and your family are at very real risk.
Where I think things get muddier is when you’re not at risk of having your head separated from your shoulders, but rather you don’t speak your dissent because you’re worried it will cost you social standing. Or friends. Or your position in your community. You know, something that’s not your life or your freedom.
Where Eunice and I differ is she’s way more patient than I am with people who don’t speak out about things they sincerely believe are wrong when doing so may cost something.
She believes, if I may take the liberty of stating her position as I understand it, that we all have the right to set for ourselves our own personal level of acceptable risk, and what we are willing to put on the line for our values. It is not necessarily wrong to decide the consequences for speaking dissent are more than we are willing to pay.
I’m a lot more hardline about it. I believe that, to quote Jon Stewart:
If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.
If you make your values a part of your identity, but fail to express them whenever they might cost you something, then yes, your silence, functionally, does mean assent.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The problem is, evil can make it expensive enough that nobody wants to be the first one to do something.
It’s like a criminal holding 30 hostages with a six-shot revolver. If everyone stood up, they’d win. But the first one to stand up is getting shot, so nobody wants to be the first one to stand up, so everyone meekly complies with the criminal and allows him to tie them up, so now he can kill all 30 at his leisure.
There’s actually a scene in a Marvel movie, of all things, that nicely illustrates the dilemma of qui tacet consentire videtur:
At what cost our dissent? Most of us would like to look in the mirror and tell ourselves we are like this man. Almost nobody actually is. I’ll bet folding money that most people will keep silent in the face of things they are think are wrong even if the cost of speaking up is quite small.
When I posted this on Quora, a friend remarked that in his opinion, Eunice’s position shows greater empathy than mine; that is, Eunice is less hard-line than I am because she’s more sensitive to the plight of the person placed in the position of not being able to speak up without facing the community’s retaliation.
I chewed on that idea for weeks. I had a sense that there was something missing from that idea, but it took me a while to put my finger on what it was.
In situations where, for example, someone is in the closet as a member of some sexual or ethnic morality for fear of the community’s reaction if he comes out, I agree. That’s absolutely a reasonable choice, and deserves respect and compassion. In fact, I’ve chosen to live openly, as I’ve said in my memoir and also at events back as far as the 90s, in part because I can. I’ve never had a job that would be at risk because someone finds out I’m polyamorous, or family that would disown me.
In that sense, I’m privileged, and I know it, and it’s because I’m privileged I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for the next person to be open.
What I’m talking about here is slightly different from being in the closet, though. This answer is more about being silent in the face of things you know to be wrong—not silence in the sense of “I am silent about my own sexual orientation because I am worried people will harm me,” but in the sense of “I see people like me harming those who come out of the closet, and I’m silent about that because I don’t want those people to attack me too.” I do think those are two different situations, and in the latter, being silent to the bigotry of others does serve as assent to their bigotry.
If I as a straight person don’t stand up to homophobia, am I complicit in it? If I as a man don’t stand up to misogyny, am I complicit in it? I personally think the answer is yes.
The part about empathy is what triggered that realization, because it’s precisely empathy that makes me draw that bright line. I think that it’s easy to have empathy for the straight person who doesn’t stand up to the homophobe, because most of us identify with that person and it’s easiest to have empathy for those who are like us.
But the person who most needs empathy isn’t the straight person too scared to speak up, but the gay person being targeted in the first place.
Yes, it’s important to have empathy for the straight person who’s worried about being targeted by the bigots, because yes, bigots can and do come after those on the “side” of the disfavored group—look at, for example, American white nationalists who target Black people but also target “race traitors” they perceive as siding with Black people against their own race.
But in that particular case, who do we empathize with more? Who drives our compassion: the white person who is afraid of being branded a “race traitor” and harassed by the white nationalists, or the Black person at the receiving end of their hate?
I see that bright line not because I don’t empathize with the white guy who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself from the bigot, but because I do empathize with the person who has to live with that bigotry when nobody is willing to speak up.
Well, to start with, nobody in the world actually wants social justice.
There. I said it.
Okay, lots of people sincerely believe they want social justice; the people who say they want it aren’t lying, exactly. It’s way more complicated than that, and a lot happens between “I’d like to live in a just world” and “I am going to work to make a just world happen.”
Buckle up, this answer is gonna get loooooong.
Let’s start here: The real world is complicated. Really, really complicated. You might think getting your scanner/printer to work with Windows is complicated, but that’s peanuts compared to socioeconomic and geopolitical reality.
And people, even smart people, handle complexity poorly.
Topical case in point: What’s happening in Israel and Gaza right now.
If you want to understand what’s happening, you need to know quite a lot of history from the 1940s on. There’s a lot of “there” there: the Israeli offer, turned down by the Arabic population; the reasons Egypt and Jordan closed their borders to the Palestinians; the history of Hamas, which is both a terrorist organization and also a government (and before that, the Muslim Brotherhood); the way Egypt has deliberately played the Gaza refugees as political pawns…it’s complicated and ugly and no side has totally clean hands, but even understanding where the balance lies requires a pretty thorough history lesson…
…and oh God that’s, like, sooooooo complicated, whyyyyyyy can’t someone just tell me who the good guys are and who the bad guys are?
That’s the thing: a lot of people want to treat actual, real-world political situations like football matches or WWF wrestling, with a clearly defined good guy and a clearly defined bad guy, so they know who they’re supposed to root for.
Even people who start out genuinely, sincerely interested in social justice can easily get bogged down.
That’s the heartbreaking thing about, you know, empathy and compassion. When you sincerely want to leave the world in better shape than you found it, you soon find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Injustice doesn’t exist because someone woke up one day and said “Hey! You know what? I think I’ll be a dick to other people today!”
Injustice exists because entrenched economic, social, and political systems with roots thousands of years deep have entrenched ways of doing things because the people atop those systems benefit from doing things that way.
Fighting against that is hard. It grinds you down. However energetic and idealistic you were when you started, it pulverizes you.
Nobody has infinite time. Nobody has infinite energy.
Which is fine, except that most people want to believe themselves to be one of the good guys, on the side of Truth and Righteousness and Justice, even when we don’t want to—or can’t!—do the work of getting there. It’s not enough to say “You know what? I’m not informed enough about this to have a reasonable opinion.” Oh, no, no, we want to take sides but we don’t want to invest the time or labor in making sure we pick the right side.
We just want to know who to blame.
Knowing who the bad guy is helps define us as the good guy. If we’re against the bad guy, that makes us good, right? Right?
So what do we do?
We develop heuristics. Cognitive shortcuts. Quick and dirty rules of thumb to simplify complex situations and help guide us toward the ‘right’ team to root for. These fast and easy heuristics, at least in theory, cut through all the tedious drek of having to learn all that history and become informed of the goals and grievances of all the players and untangle a knotty and nuanced tangle that’s been all balled up for decades.
But here’s the thing:
Heuristics are not subtle. They’re fast intuitive guidelines that substitute for actual understanding. They feel right, but that doesn’t mean they are right.
Those heuristics—“believe women,” “always side with the most historically oppressed,” whatever they are—gradually become rules, then social tribal markers, then symbols of moral purity. Heuristics become adopted by tribes as ways to tell the in-group from the out-group. If you see a hashtag like #believewomen, you can probably make a pretty good guess about the politics of the person who subscribes to it.
Before long, it actually becomes morally wrong not to obey the heuristics.
Enforcing moral purity becomes a way to feel powerful, to feel like you’re accomplishing something, in the face of the overwhelming hopelessness and despair that comes from fighting an entrenched system day after day and ending each day with nothing to show for it.
What it feels like to care about justice
Say your crusade is animal welfare, for example. You’ve fought for years and what do you have to show for it? There are even more factory farms now than when you started. Consumption of animals is up, not down.
But then let’s say Bob, your staunch and stalwart ally, your comrade in arms, reveals that he’s not a vegan…he thinks it’s okay to eat fish. And…and…and eggs. And he wears leather belts.
You can’t end factory farming, you can’t stop the senseless slaughter of animals…but hey, you can rally the troops against Bob, because he betrayed the cause! You can destroyed his reputation and cast him out! Look! Look! You accomplished something!
This is inevitably what happens in social justice circles. We end up here because:
People want a morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag; and
Any morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag cannot capture reality, and therefore is rather limited as a tool to change reality.
People tend to think of “social justice” as a left thing, but this process knows no political bounds. Those on the right do it just as often—they simply don’t call it “social justice.”
But the same things still apply: they have a way they want the world to be; changing the world requires tremendous amounts of effort and work; people don’t have limitless resources; they fall back on simple rules to tell them who the good guys and bad guys are; those simple rules become tribal markers; before long, it becomes morally unacceptable even to question those simple rules.
We see the world not at it is but as we are. We invent narratives to describe the world, and to tell us who the good guys are, and who we should be in order to think of ourselves as good. Anyone who can co-opt those narratives can control the lines between Us and Them, the boundaries that define our tribes.
So here we are. We’re terrible at nuance, we don’t have tome to get informed, so we let the hashtag mentality do the work for us.
I met her my first year of university in Sarasota, Florida, at a tiny college that is now at war with Ron Desantis called New College. It wasn’t my first year of uni—I’d been to two other universities by that point already, and would ultimately end up getting my degree from yet another—but it was my first year there.
She played a song for me. Well, she played several songs for me, really—she’s the reason I still love the Indigo Girls—but she played a particular song for me, Gaudì, by the Alan Parsons Project.
That opened up a rabbit hole. It was 1990, just before the Internet as we know it started to become a thing, and I wanted to find out everything I could about Antoni Gaudì, the completely bonkers architect, and the Sagrada Familia, his most famous work.
I resolved then that one day I would visit Barcelona and see the Sagrada Familia myself.
Last month, I did. It was, by a large margin, more magnificent than I could have imagined.
Mad scientists get all the media limelight. Not enough people truly appreciate mad architects.
The Sagrada Familia is deliriously, exuberantly bonkers, a brash monument to defiance of conventional ideas about working stone.
A lot of folks are familiar with it, at least in passing. If you see a photo of the exterior, odds are good you’ll recognize Gaudì’s weird, still-under-construction cotton-candy masterpiece.
Apologies in advance, this post is about to get really image-heavy. All bandwidth abandon, ye who enter here.
We were in Barcelona last month to spend some quality time together, and to do a photo shoot of the Borg Queen xenomorph hiphugger parasite strapon, about which more later.
Our first full day in Barcelona (or was it our second? The days blurred together), some of us headed out into the Spain summer heat to see the gloriously insane architectural wonder of the Basilica of the Sacred Family.
(They did not, of course, allow bunny ears inside the church.)
The place was…words fail. Brilliant. Grand. Magnificent beyond anything I expected. I cried when we got there.
I’ve seen photos, of course. But no pictures, not even the ones I’m posting here, can do any justice to the scale of the place. Even standing outside doesn’t give you a sense of the enormity of this monument to a strange man’s strange vision.
These oddly angular figures are much larger than life-sized, with a Cubist vibe I really dig.
The level of detail absolutely everywhere, inside and out, is just breathtaking. Gaudì was obsessed with animal motifs, that decorate the walls and doors all around the church.
One of the many doors is this enormous heavy thing of bronze, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs. (And yes, the text is backward on the door.)
I love that you can tell which symbols resonate with people by which symbols visitors touch.
Oh, but the inside…
The inside is where you truly get a sense of just how enormous, how vast this space truly is.
These photos don’t do it justice. No photos do it justice. The sheer overwhelming magnitude of this vast space inspires awe.
Just standing in this vaulted space, just existing here, is a deeply, profoundly awe-inspiring sensation.
We got here after a long (and honestly rather tedious) guided tour of the outside, which I recommend you skip if you ever visit—it was almost enough to suck one’s soul through one’s ears, so incredibly bland and boring it was.
I don’t rightly comprehend how it’s possible to make Gaudì or his grand creation boring, but somehow, the tour guide did it.
But all that was burned away in the avalanche of wonderment at stepping through the door into the church and really appreciating, for the first time, such incomprehensible beauty.
Standing there bathed in ethereal light, it’s hard not to feel like you’re within some living thing.
Even the light itself is alive, as much a part of the architecture as the stone and the glass. This space flows with light, in a way no picture can ever show. The light moves constantly, always changing, brilliant, flowing along the walls as the earth spins and the sun moves across the sky, never the same from moment to moment..
Every time you look up, it’s different, the light, the color, bringing even more life to what always feels alive.
My friend Alice, who I met in Tallinn some years ago, was able to join us in Barcelona. She found a quiet place from which to try to capture the extraordinary play of light and stone in watercolor.
When I visited St. Paul’s in the Vatican, I saw a monument to tedious human greed, every pope trying to outdo the one before, inscribing their names in gold above each new wing. Here…this place is the opposite of that, beauty rather than hubris, inspiration instead of braggadocio.
Everywhere your eye turns, there’s more to see, more to discover, more to explore. The breathtaking level of detail that fills every part of this space is hard to take in, yet it all works together exquisitely.
Even the essential infrastructure, utilitarian things like staircases, become objects of beauty.
Backing up to take the whole thing in, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and humbled. I visited the Sagrada Familia twice, and it made me cry both times.
It still isn’t finished, and won’t be for decades. Antoni Gaudì envisioned a cathedral in the old style, a work of generations finished a century more after it began, touched by the hands of many architects.
Some of the more modern elements include design philosophies that Gaudì might not have chosen, like this strangely abstract Jesus re-envisioned as a Sith Lord, but that’s part of the point.
He saw the Sagrada Familia as a sort of paper boat set adrift into the future, something he would never live to see completed, a project that would be guided by future generations long after his time was over.
It’s a heady and powerful thing to touch those walls and feel the way it has become not one person’s project, but a project by humanity. No words or images I am capable of can ever truly express even one percent of the incredible experience of being alive to witness such a magnificent undertaking.
For those of you who’ve been hiding beneath a rock these past few news cycles, the Internet Archive, the operators of the Internet Wayback Machine, was just handed a stunning defeat in a copyright feud with Hatchett, Random Penguin, and other major publishers.
Essentially, they had set up an internet lending library, and the publishers…didn’t take kindly to that.
As a book author, I have super-complicated and mixed feelings about this.
There are two different ways to think about this huge kerfluffle, morally and legally. On top of that, there’s a whole ’nother dimension to the problem that has nothing to do with books or copyright at all.
Buckle up, this will be a wild ride.
So first, let’s talk about what’s happening. The Internet Archive is trying to become a digital version of this:
Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris by Remi Mathis & Marie-Lan Nguyen — CC BY-SA 3.0
Libraries purchase books, which they lend out to readers. Legally, they can do this because of something called the “first sale doctrine,” which says if I buy a book it’s mine and I can do what I want, including loaning, giving, or selling it to you without paying the publisher.
I’ve already paid the publisher when I bought it. That copy is now my property. I can’t make copies of it and loan, sell, or give away the copies, that would violate copyright law (which is literally the right to copy).
But I can loan, sell, or give away my only copy, because there’s one copy of it that the publisher was paid for. If I give it to you, I don’t have it any more.
Okay, so. When COVID hit, libraries all over the world closed. The Internet Archive said, hey waitaminnit, people can’t go to libraries. So how about this:
We will buy a book. We will then scan the book into an electronic copy. We can then lend that electronic copy to readers, but we will only lend it to one reader at a time. Once we lend it to someone, we won’t lend it to anyone else until that person has checked it back in with us, which erases it off that person’s computer.
It’s the same thing, right? We buy a book, we loan the book out, there’s only ever one copy on loan for each copy we buy. Just like a library.
Well, hang on, not so fast.
The legal situation around ebooks is a mess.
Publishers have long resented libraries and used-book stores. They quite like the idea that everyone who reads a book gives them money. They’d prefer to live in a world where if you buy a book, you are not allowed to give it sell it to someone else—if someone else wants to read it, they have to buy it too.
Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris by Remi Mathis & Marie-Lan Nguyen — CC BY-SA 3.0
Publishers hate this
The first sale doctrine came about in 1908, after publishers sued a book store that was selling books for less money than the publishers wanted them to.
The Supreme Court held that publishers have intellectual property rights in books that pertain to copyright and distribution rights, but the distribution right is exhausted once a book is transferred.
In English, that means if I sell you a book you can’t make copies of it, but I can’t control what you do with that physical book you just bought—I can’t stop you from selling or giving it to someone else, nor control how much you sell it for.
Then ebooks came along. And ebooks aren’t physical things. And book publishers said “we aren’t selling you this ebook. You are giving us money for a license to read it. You don’t own anything. We aren’t selling this file to you. We still own it. The first sale doctrine doesn’t apply.”
If you buy a print book, you have the legal right to loan, give, or sell it to others.
If you “buy” an ebook, you are paying for a limited, revocable license to read it. You don’t own the ebook. The publisher can revoke your right to read it whenever they like. If Amazon decides to erase your Kindle tomorrow, they can do that. You have no right to loan, give, or sell that ebook to other people unless the publisher says you can.
So ebooks and print books are very different animals. You have a legally protected right to buy print books, start a library, and loan those physical objects to other people.
Ebooks? Nope. You have no right whatsoever to buy a bunch of ebooks and lend them out.
But wait! The Internet Archive is buying physical books!
Yup. But they’re not lending out those physical books. They’re scanning them, turning them into ebooks, and lending out the ebooks.
U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl, who is overseeing the case, was quite blunt about this:
At bottom, IA’s fair use defense rests on the notion that lawfully acquiring a copyrighted print book entitles the recipient to make an unauthorized copy and distribute it in place of the print book, so long as it does not simultaneously lend the print book.But no case or legal principle supports that notion. Every authority points the other direction.
And legally, he’s 100% right. No law, court finding, or interpretation suggests that if I buy a book I can transform it into another medium and then loan, give, or sell it on.
Copyright law allows fair use in the case of “transformative use,” which is use adds “new expression, meaning, or message” to the original work.” This is how movie and book critics can show clips or excerpts; their critique is “transformative use.”
The Internet Archive said “hey, the courts said that when Google scanned books, that was transformative use!” Judge Koeltl said “that was transformative use because Google scanned the books to make them searchable, but Google isn’t giving out scanned copies. You’re not doing anything new, you’re just scanning the books and giving them out.”
Legally, Judge Koeltl is 100% absolutely positively right.
The First Sale Doctrine applies quite narrowly to physical objects—physical copies of a book. All the laws about this are quite clear on that (though of course in 1908 nobody could imagine a book that wasn’t a physical thing, but still—the law as written is what it is).
Judge Koeltl also pointed out that publishers have no way to know if the Internet Archive is only loaning out as many copies as they have.
Libraries that loan ebooks do so with special permission of the publisher. This special permission comes with all kinds of strings attached, including paying fees and using encryption systems to make sure that if I copy a loaned ebook, then check it back in to the livrary, then restore the copy, I can’t read it—when I check it in, the library servers revoke my encryption keys.
The library servers also record and report the number of copies on loan, and this can be audited.
Internet Archive? Didn’t do any of that.
Morally, as a published author who makes a living writing, I think the Internet Archive is 100% absolutely positively right.
Their logic is sound. The spirit of the First Sale Doctrine clearly is intended to allow someone who’s purchased a book to loan it to others, even if the law as written came from a time before ebooks.
The Internet Archive argues, and I believe, that loaning books encourages sales. I know I personally have bought books I’ve borrowed.
But regardless of whether or not that’s true, if you’ve bought my book you should be able to loan it out.
Now, the Internet Archive’s copy control system may be problematic, but that’s engineering, not morality or law.
I sincerely hope the appellate court sees the intent of the law and agrees. I doubt they will. I think this is headed for the Supreme Court, and if I were a betting man I’d offer 80/30 odds the Internet Archive will lose.
The Internet Archive is facing an existential threat. If it loses on appeal—and I think it will—the damages will be staggering. Enough to bankrupt the Archive (which is a non-profit entity) hundreds of times over.
And that would be a disaster.
I don’t use the word “disaster” lightly. It would be a complete catastrophe. The Internet Archive houses the world’s only archive of the bulk of the World Wide Web.
They do a lot more, too. They are a repository for old games, flash videos, and so on that have otherwise been lost.
I fear that huge amounts of history will be gone forever if the Internet Archive ceases to be. The transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age is a watershed moment in human history, as important as the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, but because digital records are ephemeral, incredibly important historical records are also incredibly fragile.
We are living, right now, in an important time in human civilization. The Internet Archive is literally the only existing record of important parts of it. If they cease to be and their archive is destroyed, it will be this century’s equivalent of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
Inspired by a question on Quora, I’ve been thinking about the idea of truth, and more specifically, the way societies seem to have an eccentric orbit around the truth—sometimes closer in, sometimes further away.
The United States, at the moment, is definitely at an apogee in its extremely elliptical orbit around the truth. At the moment, large parts of the American population, raised in a society that has attacked and undermined public education and critical thinking for decades, is of the opinion that truth is merely another opinion, and facts are whatever you want them to be. Don’t like the facts as they are? Come on down to Post Truth Incorporated, where we have 100% organic free-range no-cage alternative facts to suit every budget, agenda, and political ideology!
The pendulum doesn’t swing back and forth
A lot of folks think of society as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between two poles. This cyclic model of society suggests that countries or cultures swing back and forth between two poles, often liberalism and conservatism, but the overall tendency as time goes on is generally ‘forward,’ whatever ‘forward’ means.
I would like to propose that this is codswallop.
It’s overly simplistic. Societies don’t swing back and forth, and the poles are never fixed.
Instead, I think the truth is a strange attractor around which the trajectory of a society warps and bends, sometimes near, sometimes far, always in motion. The exact path the society takes is highly sensitive to that society’s origin myth, and varies with everything from current local politics to natural disasters to pop music trends.
Pretty much exactly like this:
This means you could take snapshots of a society’s history, like paragraphs out of the society’s history books, and treat the pile of snapshots like a Poincaré map of that society’s eccentric orbit around the truth.
Mythologies are necessary for social identity, every culture will have one, and subtle variations in a society’s founding myth can have huge effects on its path around the attractor of truth. A society that, for example, idolizes the myth of the Rugged Individualist may at some point along its trajectory bend in the direction of the notion that truth is a matter of personal opinion, not empirical fact. A society that enshrines the value that belief in God is vital to being a good citizen might find itself pulled toward the attractor of authoritarian religion as it flows along its course.
But these attractions are never as simple as a pendulum swing. Too many variables, too many competing ideas go into a society’s culture. Just as you can never set foot in the same river twice, for when you return both you and the river will have changed, a society cannot revisit the same moment twice, however much its members may long for the nostalgic past.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s probably true over great stretches of time, years to centuries to millennia, but the loops and bends away from that direction happen all the time, drawn by the irresistible tropism toward Rugged Individualism, Somebody Else’s Problem, xenophobia, profiteering, fear, and the urge toward authoritarianism that seems baked into us as a species.
Right now, we’re on one of those crazy slingshots away from truth, in an era where American Republican operatives sneeringly refer to the opposition as the “reality-based contingent” and offer “alternative facts.”
For those of us trapped on this arc, it’s small comfort that given another 40, 50 years, the moral arc of the universe may once again bend back toward justice. So…let’s be kind out there.
But I didn’t come here to talk about the movie, or James Cameron. I came here to talk about virtue signaling, and white saviors crusading against white saviors, and offer some hot takes that will almost certainly lead to angry emails in my inbox.
Before we dive in to the rage, let me say that when I talk about “virtue signaling,” I don’t mean Virtue Signaling™, the brand that the American right uses to tarnish any display of empathy or compassion that suggests one is anything other than a complete sociopath. (I expand a little on the distinction between virtue signaling and Virtue Signaling™ over here.)
Okay, let’s do this.
James Cameron and the Synthetic Rage Machine
Back in 2009, James Cameron, of Aliens and Terminator 2 fame, made a movie called Avatar. I watched it, thought it was really good, watched it again, and then forgot about it. It’s showy but, like cotton candy, it melts quickly, leaving nothing behind.
Avatar was fluff. Fluff that was a bit problematic, with its overtones of “white hero saves the noble savages” tropes, but fluff.
However, it made more money than a televangelist with a coke habit, so it was perhaps inevitable there would be a second.
Now the second movie is here, and the liberal internetverse is aflame with acrimony, because if there’s one thing the modern-day liberal is absolutely certain of, it’s that the path to a kinder, more just, more empathic and inclusive society starts with screaming hate.
The issue, which I will confess I haven’t done hours of research about as I don’t actually have much interest in the second Avatar movie, appears to be the issue of cultural appropriation, leavened with a heaping teaspoon of white-saviorism. If you want a dive down the rabbit hole, you can find out more here and here and here and here, and good luck to you.
Predictably, the outrage spread like wildfire on Twitter, where people eager to show other people how much they supported the indigenous without, you know, actually doing anything inconvenient or costly to support the indigenous took to their keyboards:
Oh, no, wait, sorry, wrong Twitter outrage.
Ahem. The outrage spread on Twitter, where one particular Tweet was copy-pasted (not retweeted, not shared, but posted word for word) about 6,000 times, according to Google, not including posts on locked accounts. I won’t bother to link to any of them—you can find them if you want—but I will say they were even copy-pasted by people I once had genuine respect for. People I used to look up to. It’s hard to watch your heroes die.
Now, here’s the thing:
I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t problematic. I’m not telling you to see it…I’ve enjoyed not watching it, and I look forward to not watch it again. This isn’t really about Avatar at all, it’s about public masturbation.
All those thousands of copy-pasted tweets, all those people publicly proclaiming their support for indigenous people in the same way by repeating other people’s words—they’re wanking. “Look at me! Loot at me! Am I a good person now? I’m saying the right things. That makes me a good person, right? Right? Look at me!”
Virtue vs Virtue Signaling
How do you tell the difference between virtue and virtue signaling?
Virtue makes the world a better place. Virtue signaling makes you feel better about yourself.
When I look at Tweets about supporting underprivileged indigenous people by not watching a movie, I can’t help but think, “Point to the person who has a better life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to a tangible improvement in someone’s quality of life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the hungry person who was fed because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the village that had no water but now has a new well because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the sick child that now has medical care because you didn’t watch this movie.”
What? What’s that you say? Speak up. A little louder, please, I can’t hear you.
Oh, really? You didn’t actually improve anyone’s life? You just…didn’t watch a movie? That’s…that’s it?
Then shut the fuck up. You’re not supporting anyone. You’re showing off for the other people in your social set.
See, I could understand respecting someone who said “You know what, this movie has problematic aspects. An average theater ticket costs $15. Instead of watching it, why don’t you take that $15 and donate it to this particular fund that serves this particular underprivileged community in this particular way.”
If you do that, at least you’re actually benefitting someone besides yourself, even if it’s only in a small way. You’re actually, you know, making a tiny change in the world.
But if you’re not willing to do that? You’re showing off. Your “virtue” is empty, pretentious posing, benefitting nobody but you, a way for you to brag to people in your peer group without actually expending anything more than the barest minimum effort. You copy-pasted a sentence into Twitter! Ooh, you’re so courageous, posturing to win praise from your friends. Looking at you, making a difference in the world.
Paving the Way to a Better World
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The thing I like about my fellow progressives is that we—well, most of us, anyway—do sincerely want the world to be better tomorrow than it is today. We do genuinely want to live in a world that is more egalitarian, more open, more honest, more compassionate, more fair.
No matter how many “this is the world the Liberals want” memes the alt-right makes.
But too many progressives want something else more than we want a better world: We want to know where the lines are between Us and Them. Why? Because we want—indeed, need—to feel superior to someone. The most right-wing, hardcore Evangelical Baptist has nothing on an average urban progressive when it comes to sanctimony.
(Side note here: the irony of white men riding in to save the day against white saviors by copy-pasting Tweets, rather than, you know, actually saving anyone…well, if there were a Nobel Prize for Irony, I’m not saying it would win, but it would definitely be a contender.)
It cannot, it cannot be okay if the intention of progressives—which I assume it is—is progress forward into a future of more empathy and understanding for more people, it cannot be that the primary mechanism by which we’re going to make that progress is the suppression of empathy and understanding for anyone who doesn’t align with our beliefs. It cannot be that unmitigated expression of furious outrage will somehow alchemize into a future of peace and love.
If you want the world to be better when you wake tomorrow than it was when you woke today, but you want to bask in the warm glow of your own righteousness while you make empty gestures of great vengeance and furious anger those who dare tread too close to the line between Us and Them even more…
The next time you sit down at your computer to blast evil from the comfort and safety of your keyboard, you brave and noble cultural warrior, you, but you cannot point to a single person whose cause you champion who actually ends up tangibly better off for it…mmmaybe don’t, okay?
Merry Christmas. May 2023 bring you less virtue signaling and more virtue.
In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.
the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted
It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.
Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”
This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.
But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.
Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.
All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.
Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.
Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:
People like to bully.
People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.
Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.
People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.
Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.
Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.
All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:
All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.
It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.
Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.
So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.
Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”
You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted
This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”
I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.
I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.
And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.
The Bank Robber’s Gun
Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.
Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.
No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.
So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.
Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.
So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:
He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.
Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.
He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .
What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?
That’s how stochastic bullying works.
And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.
Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable
There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:
But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.
The larger lesson here is this:
Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.
And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.
But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?
Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?
So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.
What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?
This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.
Bumper Sticker Morality
“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.
But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.
“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”
When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).
Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)
Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility
As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.
Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.
Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’
But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.
And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.
Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?
Will no one do something about this conference?
It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.
Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.
But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.
This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.
Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.
That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!
That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.
And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.
Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.
It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.
Being Human in an Age of Social Media
If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.
There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.
Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.
Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.
So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.
Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.
The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.
And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.
Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage
The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.
Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?
What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?
You become easy to manipulate.
You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.
So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.
Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?
And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator
The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.
Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.
The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)
When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.
I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.
You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.
None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.
Don’t be a sucker
What’s the solution?
I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.
So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.
So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this: